by Elliott Abrams
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is clearly reluctant to order a ground incursion into Gaza. This has disappointed some of his critics, who think it's a sign of lack of courage, or of excessive wavering and hedging, or of thinking about domestic politics.
It is not; instead, it's prudence. For one thing, Netanyahu knows he would be sending some Israeli soldiers to their deaths. But he also knows that in the sick math of the Gaza war, Israel would be blamed for "disproportionate" killing.
What that means is simple: Too many Palestinians would die, and "not enough" Israelis -- in the view of much of "world opinion." You would read that calculation in The New York Times and see it on the BBC. In Operation Cast Lead in 2008, about 1000-1400 Palestinians died, and 13 Israelis. In Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 it was something like 150 to 6. As of now, in the current conflict there are no Israeli deaths and about 100 Palestinian deaths. Here's how Time Magazine started its story:
"The death toll among Palestinians scrambling under a relentless Israeli air assault in the Gaza Strip passed 80 Thursday and edged close to 100 Friday, including at least 14 children. … Meanwhile, the barrage of rockets Gaza militants launched toward Israeli cities failed to produce a significant casualty on the third day of Israel's offensive Thursday. … The Israeli military said it destroyed more buildings in the first 36 hours of the current campaign than in all of Pillar of Defense. More people are dying too: The 80 fatalities reported so far is, once again, more than half the reported death toll from the longer bombing two years earlier."
Time then discussed exactly this phenomenon: When what "world opinion" sees as "too many" Palestinians dying and the balance is "too great" in Israel's favor -- that is, too many Palestinians and not enough Israelis being killed -- the calls for a cease-fire will escalate. Moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas will be the order of the day -- except for those who elevate Hamas, since after all it is killing fewer people!
Netanyahu knows this, because Israel has lived through it in all its past wars with the Palestinians. So does Hamas know it, and Hamas is brutal and vicious enough to hide behind civilians and seek civilian deaths. After all, this was the central theory of the Goldstone report: that Israel was killing civilians and was morally culpable -- guilty of war crimes. No doubt we'll see the same arguments made this time, especially if Israel goes in on the ground.
As I write, the Hamas rockets are still flying -- unguided missiles aimed toward populated areas in the hope of killing civilians. How long Israel can put off a ground incursion is anyone's guess. But if that happens, here's something you can count on: The twisted moralists will be back, comparing the numbers of casualties on both sides and accusing Israel of war crimes for the "disproportionate" use of force.
Remember this: In World War II, the United States suffered 416,000 combat deaths, or about 0.32 percent of the population. Germany suffered 4-5 million combat deaths, or about 5 percent of the population. The death ratio was 10 to 1. Did that make the war unjust? Does that mean the United States inflicted "disproportionate" numbers of casualties? Unfortunately the Israelis know "world opinion" will never be on their side in these arguments. Let's just hope the United States is.
Elliot Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece can be found on Abrams' blog "Pressure Points."
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